Wednesday, May 17, 2017

Idiot Boxing: Fargo, seasons 1 and 2 (2014, 2015)

After being blown away by the recent FX series Legion (see my review here), I had to know what creative mind was responsible for it. Turns out that mind belongs to Noah Hawley, whose surprisingly short writing resume included the FX television series Fargo - a show that I had heard rave reviews about but hadn't gotten around to watching. However, with my desire for more of Hawley's work well and truly stoked, I snapped up the series and watched them in fairly short order. My thoughts:

And so it begins. Lester (left) inadvertently meets Lorne Malvo
and somewhat unwittingly sends him along a brutal path that
doesn't end until dozens are dead.
Season 1 (2014)

An amazing and surprising series that seems to do the impossible: take an iconic, singular film and adapt it into an original story that both emulates the spirit and some elements of the original movie and uses the TV mini-series format to perfectly tell a longer and deeper tale.

The story mostly takes place in and around Bimidji, Minnesota, where impotent insurance salesman Lester Nygaard (Martin Freeman) somewhat unintentionally kicks off a spree of violence and murder which belies the otherwise sleepy little town. After the middle-aged Lester is bullied by an old high school nemesis, he meets a mysterious drifter in the hospital - Lorne Malvo (Billy Bob Thornton) - who decides to exact murderous revenge on Nygaard's tormentor. This leads to several unintended murders which eventually pull into their vortex local police officers, including Deputy Molly Solverson (Allison Tolman). Though rather quiet and unassuming, Solverson has an excellent mind for police work, as well as a staunch willingness to do what is right. Unfortunately, she is taken none to seriously by most of her fellow officers. Although she often penetrates through the murky layers covering up the dark deeds in her town, she is fighting a constant uphill battle to track down Malvo and the other people involved in the carnage.

Firstly, the story itself is the stuff of outstanding noir cinema. The murders are dark and disturbing, cutting into not only the obviously repugnant violence inherent in them, but also the shadowy human desires and weaknesses that cause them. And true to classic noir, there are more twists and turns than could possibly exist in reality. When handled correctly though, as they are in Fargo, these complexities create an engaging portrait of good people attempting to reckon with horrendous villains and atrocities. Elements to the story which may at first seem superfluous or included for mere shock value almost always have a place in the larger tale, and these places are revealed as the episodes unfold.

A few more of the oddball and compelling hardcases running
around the Minnesota countryside in this story.
On top of the framework of the ripping crime story is the characters. True to the film which inspired it, Fargo includes an eminently memorable cast of characters. While there are several ways in which this first TV show season draws from the film, perhaps the deftest way is the creation and handling of these characters. Lester Nygaard is a clear echo of Jerry Lundegaard, both being weak-willed sad sacks whose selfish and foolish decisions unleash hell upon those around them. Deputy Solverson is also another version of Marge Gunderson, the deceptively expert female police officer who ultimately tracks down the vicious criminals in the center of the story. There is also Lorne Malvo, who is arguably a darker, more fleshed-out and frighteningly intelligent version of the stoic, homicidal maniac Gaear Grimsrud. Malvo in particular is quite something, played with award-winning intensity by Billy Bob Thornton. Not unlike Heath Ledger's Joker character in The Dark Knight, Malvo is a self-avowed agent of chaos whose entire existence is predicated upon ignoring the rules of empathetic society. He sees himself as a predator who is well within his rights to take whatever he wants from whomever he wants, including life itself. He even delights in sowing little seeds of discord, simply to break people out of what he sees as idiotic patterns of socially prescribed behavior. It's a character and performance that keeps you itching for him to show up again, just to see exactly what he's going to do, even if some of those things are unspeakably horrible.

One other aspect of the film absorbed into this show was the pace and tone. Making no bones about mimicking the Coen brothers' knack for such things, writer and director Noah Hawley decided not to mess with a good and unique thing, giving us plenty of slow and careful scenes displaying the lonely winter landscapes of Minnesota. The show even uses parts of the original soundtrack, with its eerie, lonely strings moaning along, occasionally punctuated with short, quirky percussive instruments. It creates an oddly playful sense, which actually fits the entire show, as dark as it often gets.

Obviously, I found this first season tremendous. Tremendous enough to dive right into the second season...

Season 2 (2015)

In an interesting and somewhat bold narrative move, season 2 takes us backwards in time to 27 years before the events depicted in season one. We go to 1979, when Molly Solverson's father and grandfather found themselves in the middle of a shocking outbreak of violence in their normally quiet little Minnesota town.

It's the end of the 1970s, and the United States is in a massive and violent transition period. The specter of the lost "conflict" in Vietnam hovers over many of the men and women who served in that horribly misguided war. Liberation movements abound, and large-scale corporatization is looming on the near horizon. Amid these larger forces, in Luverne, North Dakota, aspiring feminist and more-than-a-little delusional beautician Peggy Blumquist runs into a man stumbling out of a Waffle Hut. Rather than stop, Peggy continues to drive all the way home with the unconscious man on her hood. At home, her husband Ed, the local butcher, discovers the body and is attacked by the still-living hit-and-run victim. Ed kills the man in self-defense, but what neither he nor Peggy yet know is that the man is Rye Gerhadt - the youngest of the three Gerhardt brothers - key members of the most powerful crime family in the Fargo, North Dakota area. Rye's death sets in motion an ever-escalating sequence of violence and pursuit that pits the Gerhardts, local and state police, and an encroaching Kansas City crime syndicate all against each other in the otherwise quiet region of the American North.

This sophomore season is arguably better than the first, which is saying something. While there are a few general themes and character types that are similar to the first season, this prequel season is very much its own tale, with its own rhythms, beats, twists, and larger themes that stand very much on their own. Sure, knowing and seeing the little connections between this season and the previous one can provide some fun little Easter eggs for viewers, but they are far from essential to any of the relevant aspects of the tale. True to the Coen Brothers' cinema spirit, this season takes a mundane setting and sometime rather common and simple people and thrusts it all into a dark, twisted world of violence and brutality that somehow seems, at alternate moments, out of place and right at home. The sparse and frigid landscapes of the Dakotas and Minnesota convey the rugged individualist spirit required to survive in such regions, and this carries through to many of the characters, weak and strong alike. The linguistic and behavioral quirks are right in keeping with the original movie, though the ten-episode format allows for a larger exploration of those cultural oddities.

Mike Milligan and his eerily silent, twin hatchet men - the
Kitchen brothers. Bokeem Woodbine turns in one of several
excellent performances in this season. 
As with the first season, the storytelling is perfectly tight. In short order, we are introduced to several characters who are compelling for their strengths, weaknesses, grand ambitions, or lack thereof. Virtually everyone turns in excellent performances, though I found the standouts to be Patrick Wilson as Lou Solverson (father to season one's understated yet brilliant herione, Molly), Kirsten Dunst as Peggy, and Bokeem Woodbine as Kansas City crime syndicate enforcer Mike Milligan. Wilson in particular was a breath of fresh air in many ways. Up to the point, we hadn't really seen a completely assured, competent, and steady police officer character. While the character's daughter, Molly, would later become just as capable a detective and officer as her father, the Molly of season one is still fighting a massive uphill battle against patriarchal gender biases and her relative youth, leading to a bit of uncertainty and tentativeness. In season two, Lou is a seasoned police officer and combat veteran from Vietnam. He calls things as he sees them and doesn't balk at doing the right thing, even when it leads into the heart of danger. But he is merely the standout among many strong, fascinating characters whose interactions make so many scenes in this season thoroughly gripping.

One other note on this season - it became clear just how well creator Noah Hawley is integrating certain little homages to the Coen Brothers' work - not just the original Fargo, but even their other movies. Without ever feeling unoriginal or forced, each of the first two seasons has a handful of moments - they might be brief lines of dialogue, a general character type, the framing of certain shots, or some other aspect of the narrative - that are clearly tips of the cap to other films like Miller's Crossing, Raising Arizona, or other Coen masterpieces. It's far from the most important thing, but astute fans of their films will notice and appreciate them.

It's hard to watch these first two seasons and, when added to the number of fantastic TV shows released in the last decade, not agree with the notion that this truly is a "Golden Age" of television. I've already jumped into season 3, and expect equally amazing things from show runner Hawley.